Risky Menschlichkeit


Sounds like the wheelman for Meyer Lansky, no? Mensch is a Metalingual minefield, having come full circle, to mean its exact opposite, even after you tiptoe through the “Man/Mankind” lunar dust. In German, it originally meant “a man,” whereas in Yiddish it means “a standup guy” [a unisex term]. Nowadays, Menschlich has come to mean either “humane” or “all-too-human, warts and all.” A vignette from my 1988 visit to Vienna: I was walking through a U-Bahn station when I saw a young woman with a baby buggy, poised at the top of a flight of stairs, like the opening scene from Battleship Potemkin. I rushed up to help her carry the buggy down the stairs, when an old woman began shrieking, “Schade! Schade!” [“Shame! Shame!”] Who the hell was she angry at? Did she think I was trying to kidnap the baby? “Wo sind die Menschen?” she asked, rhetorically. [“Where are the men?” or possibly, “Where are the standup guys?”] “Wir sind die Menschen!” I quipped [“We are the standup ‘guys.'”]; and the young woman shook my hand, in the formal manner of pre-millienal Viennese young people, before high-fiving went global.

Although it all ended with smiles, it could have been just another instance of “No good deed goes unpunished.” As a Social Science major in the 1960s, I was familiar with the admonitory tale [perhaps urban legend, if you read modern critiques] of Kitty Genovese, who was mortally attacked over a 3-hour period outside her apartment complex in Queens, NY, while 38 of her neighbors [allegedly] “did nothing.” Even if the real story is less black & white, it became the anecdotal evidence for the theory of Diffusion of Responsibility: the more onlookers to a calamity, the less likely any one of them is, to do the standup thing and try to help. Phil Ochs even wrote a song about it, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, with the tag line, “Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain; but Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game.”

So, what prompts anyone to perform an act of Menschlichkeit, like Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped to the aid of a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks as a train approached, and covered the stranger’s body with his own, as the train passed over them both? Did Wesley just have a broader definition of who was in his “Small Circle of Friends,” than the other folks on the platform? Some put it down to his Naval service, that he had been trained to [override his amygdalar freeze mode, let his hippocampus problem-solve, and so…] “act bravely and quickly.” I’ll go for that; but I know lots of fellow Naval veterans who would have averted their gaze and stayed on the platform [the other definition of Menschlichkeit]. If it hadn’t worked out so well for Wesley and the stranger, I bet it would have been reported as a double suicide.

One of my favorite aphorisms is “It’s not ‘brave,’ unless you’re scared.” [It’s just bad judgment.] There was a time 1970s Manhattan when there had been so many murders of taxi drivers [who knows why], that a cabbie put a now-famous sign on the passenger side of his plexiglass barrier saying “Though thou shalt kill me…” It made New Yorkers–even those of us who rarely had the price of cabfare–realize what Menschen [the unisex, heroic term] cab drivers were, years before the hit TV series.

So, how Menschlich are you? Would you be willing, like Zanzibar the cat, to take a good, close look at “the wolf”? It might not be the “comforting presence” it seems to be for Zanzibar; but it’s still worth getting to know.

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Filed under pro bono publico, reference group, sharks and jets

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